Celebs crossing over in peculiar way

Springer, Franken latest stars singing country music

January 02, 2004|By Phil Sweetland | Phil Sweetland,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Some unlikely celebrities are performing country songs these days.

Talk-show host Jerry Springer has been singing a new patriotic tune called "In America" to packed houses at casinos in Mississippi recently and at Democratic Party fund-raisers throughout Ohio. He also recorded a country music album, which has yet to be released.

Al Franken, the liberal comedian and author of the best-selling Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, visited Nashville in the fall to record an offbeat country duet with Claudia Church. And in December, William Shatner was here recording again, more than 30 years after he released The Transformed Man while riding his popularity in the Star Trek series. The album, ridiculed when first released but now something of a camp classic, included versions of songs like the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and Bob Dylan's "Tambourine Man" rendered in Beat-poet style.

Springer, too, had to overcome snickers when he started singing, but some who have worked with him were pleasantly surprised. "Jerry did a concert at the Grand Casino in Mississippi that went over great," said Tom Paden, a co-writer of "In America" and a Nashville veteran who has written songs for Reba McEntire's publishing company for several years. "Maybe he's not Frank Sinatra or one of the great singers, but you can tell there's a lot of passion and a lot of heart in the performances."

Springer described his singing this way in an interview: "I feel sorry for the musicians who have to play with me. You can see their eyes rolling." He added: "When I sing people really get involved because they have to guess where the notes were supposed to have been. I do it because it's fun."

Franken, Shatner and Springer are continuing a tradition in which celebrities not known for their musical skills make records. In 1964, for example, Lorne Greene, the Bonanza star, had a No. 1 pop hit with "Ringo."

Others have released records that are perhaps more interesting for their novelty than for their music. These include Gallant Men (1967), a surprise Top 30 spoken-word pop hit by the gravel-voiced Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who died two years later. (The single was released, appropriately enough, by Capitol Records.)

The actor Walter Brennan of The Real McCoys fared even better in 1962, with his spoken-word Top 5 country and pop hit "Old Rivers," on Liberty Records. Brennan, who died in 1974, talked his way through the nostalgic "Old Rivers" with musical accompaniment by the Johnny Mann Singers. The flip side was "The Epic Ride of John H. Glenn."

Another Star Trek fixture, Leonard Nimoy, recorded Highly Illogical during the successful early run of Star Trek. Chuck Woolery, the television game show host, and Telly Savalas, of Kojak, also recorded albums or singles.

A few of the actors-turned-singers had genuine musical talent. One was Robert Mitchum, who composed film scores and had a Top 10 country hit in 1967 singing "Little Ole Wine Drinker Me."

Perhaps the saddest Hollywood-Nashville connection involves actor River Phoenix, who died in 1993. In his last movie, The Thing Called Love (1993), Phoenix played a Nashville singer and songwriter in a story filmed largely at the Bluebird Cafe, the songwriters' nightclub here. He sang all his own songs in the film, including "Lone Star State of Mine" in a much-praised performance.

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